Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Robert Grant, "Prince of Clouds," His Paintings

Robert Grant who died last May shared a studio with me for 15 years down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.   His aunt, Alice Grant who worked for many years as a dancer for Pearl Bailey, was the muse who inspired so much of Robert's painting.  He painted a lot of his work, especially the dress paintings, in homage to her.  Aunt Alice served as Robert's inspiration and guide into theater and fine art since his early childhood.

The dress paintings are much more than simple costume pieces.  They become personas taking on something of the lives and characters of the many roles his aunt performed on stage, in life, and in Robert's imagination.  These dress paintings are exuberantly joyful and even brassy at times, characters that could be wondrous and larger than life.  Sometimes fear, grief, and loss come through in these paintings.   Robert used the stuff of theater costumes in almost all of his work; glitter, feathers, sequins, fabric, and very bright high keyed color.  Robert created very rich and evocative effects with these materials and colors turning the dress paintings into powerful presences.

Toward the end of his life, Robert painted with a much more subdued palette dominated by basic black and white.  His artist father in law who worked a lot in black and white inspired Robert's last paintings.  They are more serious in tone and in ambition than his earlier dress paintings.  These paintings express Robert's experiences as an African American artist, his spirituality, and his relationship to the legacy of modern painting, especially Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.  Something of the exuberance of his earlier dress paintings remains in these later paintings.  Sprinkled in the black and white paint is a lot or a little colored glitter, an effect that is hard to photograph.  While the technique in these last painting/ collages could be very rough, it is never crude and always precise.

Robert was an accomplished musician especially on guitar.  He was a lifelong fan of Django Reinhardt and King Crimson.  His musical interests appear frequently in his art and influence its form.

Robert spent much of his childhood on stage.  He worked as an actor when he was a child appearing on television as part of the original cast of The Electric Company and with frequent guest appearances on Good Times.  He also worked on stage as in The Me Nobody Knows and Maggie Flynn.

Robert studied painting and earned a MFA from the Tyler School of Art.  He also studied in Rome under David Hammons and Enzo Cucchi as part of a scholarship program.

Robert exhibited his work in New York and internationally including the World Financial Center, PS122 Gallery, De Paul University Gallery, and in the Tomb of Augustus in Rome.

Below is a generous sample of Robert's work from a memorial show currently on exhibit in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center where we shared a studio.

The title of this post comes from a solo show he had in 2011 at Bronx Community College.

These are all my photos.  The photo above of Robert is by Mark Power.

Alas, I do not have any titles or dates for these paintings.  My memory is too poor and unreliable to speculate on some of the ones that I remember seeing him paint.
Robert's work has yet to be catalogued.

Robert was such a great colorist, especially in this dress painting, among others.

The largest of the dress paintings

One of the smallest of the dress paintings, barely seven inches.

I look at this detail and I think, "Hans Hoffmann, eat your heart out."

I've always loved Robert's work.  And yes, it's very different from mine.  He had a masterly feel for the intricate relation between the brush, the texture of the paint, the color, and the form, and how all of those things must work together.  There are all kinds of painterly effects in his work from transparent glazes and scumbles to broad thick opaque brushwork. A lot of artists used glitter, but few used it as well as he did.  I always admired Robert's skill with brilliant colors, his ability to combine them without ever diminishing the colors or making brown mud out of them.  His colors sing off of each other like musical chords.  He had a great sense of form his entire life from the most brilliantly colored dress pictures to his black and white paintings.

Robert lived a wonderful life even though it was too short.  And now his wonderful work belongs to us all and to the ages.

Robert's studio shortly after his death.

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